The Guardian May 3, 2000


The legacy of Eureka:
Interview with Peter Lalor

To mark May Day 2000 The Guardian's Marcus Browning talked to 
Peter Lalor, the leader of the 1854 armed insurrection by miners at the 
Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, about the uprising and and its legacy how he 
perceives changes in Australia since.

The short, broad-shouldered Irishman sat erect on the edge of his chair, 
the mark of a musket powder burn on his forehead and the stump of his arm 
at his side. Marcus asked him to discuss his specific role in the 
rebellion.

PL: I don't want to talk about my part in it alone or above the 
others. It was a mighty act of defiance by us all.

MB: Perhaps you could begin by giving us a picture of the developments 
leading up to the construction of the stockade and the insurrection.

PL: Well, as you might know, the Victorian Government had imposed a 
30 shillings a month licence fee on us miners who were digging the 
goldfields at Ballarat. This was so they could wield more control over us 
and eventually force us off the goldfields and back to giving our labour to 
the colonial employing class for a bloody pittance.

In order to extract the licence money they put together a special force of 
armed police, not a few of them ex-convicts. This force used what were 
called "digger hunts, where they would raid a section of the diggings and 
demand to see every digger's licence.

Those who could not produce them on the spot were taken into custody, 
sometimes being chained to logs or trees until the hunt was over and they 
could be taken before a magistrate.

The penalty for failing to produce the licence was five pounds, a big sum 
of money for us miners whose only possessions were our pick and shovel and 
tin dish and the clothes on our backs.

MB: Many historians claim that in fact you weren't strictly workers at 
all, but men seeking individually to enrich yourselves, to "be your own 
boss.

PL: Well, hindsight is a fine thing, as they say, and I'm in a 
position to have more than my share of it. It's true that we weren't wage 
earners, but many of us were from the working class nonetheless.

The emergence of the the big mining companies soon put an end to our 
working independently for ourselves and turned us into wage slaves. 

That now is part of the history of capitalism. Marx himself, though he was 
far away in Europe, saw the significance of the events at Eureka (of course 
we didn't have Marx or Lenin or Engels to refer to at the time).

Marx could see that in demanding the abolition of a direct tax on labour 
and the abolition of property qualifications to vote or be members of 
parliament, the diggers were actually fighting for the same things which 
led to the declaration of independence of the United States of America.

There was a difference, however, that he noted, and it was  I'll quote 
the man  "that in Australia the opposition against the monopolists united 
with the colonial bureaucrats, arises from the workers.

We weren't conscious of that, you understand. Our struggle was sparked by 
an economic need and as it developed our main political aim became the 
ending of the power of the unelected royalty and their underlings.

MB: So you had no voting rights?

PL: No. The franchise was based on property qualifications and most 
miners had no property.

MB: Where did things go to next?

PL: All this didn't happen overnight. It was a long campaign where 
we put forward a number of demands, including the basic Chartist demands 
for electoral reform. But it was to no avail. 

Things really came to a head when digger James Scobie was murdered near the 
Eureka Hotel in Ballarat by the publican, an ex-convict who was friendly 
with the police. There was no stopping things then. There was a fury among 
the diggers and they stormed the pub and burned it to the ground.

That's when we formed the Ballarat Reform League and set down our demands.

On November 29, 1854, thousands of us Ballarat diggers met and burned their 
licences. A savage diggers hunt began. About a 1,000 of us marched to 
Bakery Hill, in the Eureka district, and built the stockade.

MB: What was the background of the agitators? Were they experienced in 
politics?

PL: There were a lot of people who came to the diggings, hundreds of 
thousands. Among them were French socialists, German republicans, English 
Chartists and Irish rebels. Altogether a small group in comparison; still 
we had a strong influence.

MB: How did it compare to other uprisings in the colony?

PL: It was the first major uprising against British rule in the 
history of the colony. There was a mutiny in 1804 by Irish convicts at 
Castle Hill, near Parramatta, that was brutally put down and the convicts 
hanged on the spot.

MB: How was the attack on the stockade carried out? 

PL: Early on the morning of December 3 they launched their attack on 
us when our numbers were down. They outnumbered us two to one. It was a 
bloody and ruthless attack and we fought back with all our might but they 
overwhelmed us. Some estimates put the deaths at more than 30.

We killed five soldiers and an officer. Some of us, including myself, 
escaped. Others were captured and charged with treason and sedition.

MB: Looking back, what do you see the rebellion having achieved in the 
history of Australia?

PL: In the short term we made certain gains. The ordinary folk in 
the colony were sympathetic to our cause and supported many of our demands. 
Those charged were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. When 
myself and others came out of hiding there were no charges put against us.

The following year, 1855, the miners' licence was put in the dustbin and a 
new document called the Miner's Right was introduced, costing only one 
pound a year and containing the right to vote.

Two years later manhood suffrage was granted for the election of the 
Legislative Assembly.

MB: And the long term?

PL: While we were not a class in our right, our organisation and 
actions were an example for the development of the Australian working 
class.

Our uprising in many ways was spontaneous but it nonetheless showed the 
necessity of having a force that is conscious of the need to act in their 
own class interests.

You know, understanding that  understanding the need for collective 
action  is the basis of the organised working class.

The trade union movement in Victoria was just emerging at the time of the 
stockade and those class conscious workers rallied around the miners.

Their first victories for the eight-hour work day were achieved in 1856.

MB: And what of its political influence?

PL: I think the uprising's most valuable political lesson was that 
it revealed the nature of the state. We defied the state and brandished our 
fists and our collective power at it. The ruling class, then as now, will 
tolerate no such actions.

The state, as Lenin said, is "a machine for keeping the rule of one class 
over another and you can see at a glance that this is true in the great and 
proud history of struggle of Australia's working class.

It was there in the strikes of the 1890s, when the ruling classes tried to 
push the economic burden of the '90s depression onto the toilers.

You'll recall there was the maritime strike because of the attack by the 
Steamship Owners Association on steamship officers who had the audacity to 
form a union and affiliate themselves with the Trades Hall Council.

Combined with the struggle by the wharf labourers it was nothing less than 
an attack on the right of workers to organise in a union.

There was the great shearers' strike at Barcaldine, the miners' strike in 
Broken Hill, both in '92. The members of the Industrial Workers' of the 
World who were framed and jailed during WW1, the police protection of scabs 
and strike breakers in the 1917 general strike.

There were the attacks on and arrests of striking timber workers in 1929 
and the shooting down of coal miners at Rothbury that same year.

The police bashings and eviction of impoverished tenants during the Great 
Depression, the state acceptance and protection of the fascist New Guard in 
the 1930s, the use of troops by the Labor Government to break the coal 
strike of 1949 ... the list is endless.

To this day it continues  the collusion between government and employer 
in the attack on the Maritime Union, the struggle by the mine workers 
against the likes of BHP and Rio Tinto's attempts to wipe out trade 
unionism.

MB: It does give the lie to much of the history written of Australia as 
an essentially classless society mostly free of conflict, doesn't it?

PL: Yes. There's always the military and police and the law courts 
brought into the fray. But you know, its a wonderful fighting tradition we 
have here, a tradition that shows the unstoppable optimism of we ordinary 
working people, no matter how dark the day may seem at times.

We can marvel at the resilience and strength of people, and look back to 
1854 from this May Day in the year 2000 and see how far we've come and 
perhaps know better the road ahead.

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